I recently started reading a rather interesting new book: You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, written by Jaron Lanier. I’ll post my reactions to the book as I read through it; this first post will introduce the author and review the opening of the book.
Jaron Lanier is an unlikely candidate to write a book that is critical of any kind of technology. In the 1980s he coined (or at least popularized) the term “virtual reality” and developed some of the first VR gear and software systems. After his company was acquired by Sun Microsystems, he joined a non-profit computer networking consortium, Internet2, as their Chief Scientist. His technical work has continued to focus on total-immersion computing, and he has held a number of research positions at major computer software and hardware firms.
Lanier is also an avid musician and composer, specializing in the playing of some rather unusual string and wind instruments. For those that have never worked in the computer industry, this combination of music and computers is not as strange as it might at first seem. During my years as a full-time software developer and program manager, I worked with numerous people who were also very accomplished musicians. Several had earned advanced musical degrees, and some even continued to play professionally as they had time. This, I think, attests to the highly-creative, artisanal nature of software programming.
In his book, Lanier brings both of these aspects of his personality to a critical examination of the so-called “web 2.0” information systems. He makes it clear in the introduction to the paperback edition that his perspective is “not antitechnology in any sense. It is prohuman” (ix). His concern is also not with the Internet as a whole, but with particular designs that “tend to pull us into life patters that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual” (x). In the opening chapter, he states his position rather clearly: “the so-called web 2.0 ideas are stinkers, and we out to reject them while we still can.”
For those that have never heard the term “web 2.0,” it refers to a style of web site that emphasizes user participation and sharing. The “content” of a web 2.0 site comes from the same people who use it: the posts and comments on a blog, the videos on YouTube, the reviews on Yelp, the information on Wikipedia, the posts on Facebook, and the tweets on Twitter. The advocates of web 2.0 celebrate the democratization of information these sites allow, but Lanier harbors some serious misgivings.
So what does Lanier think is so wrong with web 2.0? Honestly, it’s a bit difficult to grasp his argument in the opening chapter. It feels like a series of highly provocative statements, with little to no supporting evidence, strung together in a stream of consciousness. In the preface, he predicts that his words in this book will be “misrepresented by crowds of quick and sloppy readers into wikis and automatically aggregated wireless text message streams,” but he certainly isn’t making it easy in his first chapter for his readers to do otherwise. Perhaps that is his goal; to force people to read beyond the first chapter and struggle with his words to figure out what he’s really talking about.
From what I can tell, his primary concerns are articulated in the following paragraph:
When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program. When they design an internet service that is edited by a vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view (4).
Lanier seems to be concerned that our understanding of personhood is being degraded in subtle ways by the assumptions that underly the designs of current web 2.0 technologies. He uses the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) as an example of what he means. MIDI is a standard for representing musical phenomenon in a digital form so that a computer can process and manipulate it. It was invented by a friend of Lanier’s, Dave Smith, who also happened to be a keyboardist. Lanier makes the claim that MIDI was designed from a keyboardist’s perspective, and thus projects a keyboard-centric model that has difficulty representing the subtleties of wind and string instruments, much less the human voice. MIDI event messages are the analog of what happens on a keyboard: a key is pressed, a key is released. The note selected and the pressure of the strike are passed in the key-down message, and the performer can trigger additional events to bend the pitch while the note is still on, but all the other effects one can do with acoustic instruments have no representation in MIDI (note: I have never studied MIDI, so this is Lanier’s take on it, not mine). Thus, the wide range of possible acoustical musical phenomenon are lost when we start to think of music only in the terms MIDI allows; Lanier argues that the model MIDI projects has cheapened what is possible in music, and if we are not careful, we will forget that it’s only a model, and a limited one at that.
By analogy, a blog presents a certain model of discourse that is by necessity more simplistic than face-to-face interaction. You can add your comments to this post, and most blogging software will let you do that anonymously, which encourages people to say things that they would never have said to an author’s face. It may also make it difficult for me as an author to fully understand your point, as I can’t hear your vocal inflections, nor see your body language.
I agree with Lanier that we must remember that human discourse, music, and personhood are far more complex than our digital models for them, but I’m not sure I agree with his concerns that we are somehow forgetting that these are only models. I’m sure there are those who have difficulty understanding the difference between someone’s Facebook profile and the real person, but let’s consider his main example: MIDI. In the 1980s, one of my favorite sax players, the late Michael Brecker, eagerly embraced the electronic wind instrument (EWI), which was a breath-activated MIDI controller. He made some amazingly creative music with that device, but he never abandoned his acoustic saxophone. He approached the EWI as a new kind of instrument, with unique characteristics and potentialities. He explored those fully, but also never forgot how to create passionate, expressive, and heart-wrenching music on his saxophone.
Perhaps it is up to the artists to keep reminding the public that our digital models are only just that: new models that augment, not replace, the phenomenon they are intended to represent.
To end, here’s an example of Michael Brecker playing the EWI: